Happy National Volunteer Week, Canada!
One of the many things I miss about Vancouver is volunteering at Beauty Night Society. I miss seeing the familiar faces of the women (participants) waiting at the round tables for the volunteers to arrive. I miss the conversations we’d have about anything and everything, from the lovely/awful weather to the miraculous revelation that the participant is nearly 65 despite being told she would not live past 25. This may sound strange but I miss the Downtown Eastside. Yes, our dodgy poor neighbourhood that shocks international visitors every year.
Beauty Night – Because Dignity is Beautiful
Beauty Night was founded nearly 15 years ago by Caroline MacGillivray, who had been volunteering at WISH, a charity for sex trade workers. The purpose of Beauty Night is to help women from low-income households to feel dignified and respected, beautiful inside and out. Each location in Vancouver, Burnaby, Surrey, and New Westminster is a safe place for the women – and sometimes their children or grandchildren – to be. There is usually a variety of wellness services and mini makeovers offered. Services include manicures (filing and painting nails), foot soaks (foot scrubbing and massage), relaxation massage (neck, shoulder, and back in upright position), mini makeover (makeup done by professional makeup artist only), facials, qigong (by professionals), arts & crafts, and more. Volunteers are constantly recruited and there is usually a training session at least once a month or so.
If there is one person you must meet, it’s Caroline. She has always shown the greatest appreciation to each volunteer, thanking us as a group and individually for giving up our time to come in. She makes us feel like we are saints when she is the one who is doing so much more! This multitalented lady juggles a lot every day but never shows any stress or frustration on her face. Caroline is always smiling or laughing, putting everyone around her at ease. (I miss her very much!)
My Personal Experience
After spending close to a year serving at my church’s Shelter group (a soup kitchen for the homeless in Downtown Vancouver), I decided I wanted to focus more on the impoverished women. I joined the dedicated team of volunteers at the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre in December 2013. My volunteer shifts were on Mondays (17-20:00) which, from 2013 until late spring 2014, were usually the busiest. I started off manning the arts & crafts table (laying out supplies) but decided to try manicures and even foot soaks during my first month. My perspectives on so many things changed that month. Who knew that filing and painting someone else’s nails could be as challenging as painting my right hand with my left? And no wonder so many women walked very slowly with ingrown toenails and extreme bunions crammed into their worn out trainers. (I burst into tears watching one Call the Midwife episode when Nurse Lee visited and washed the feet of a homeless old lady who hadn’t taken off her shoes in ages. The sight of the feet in the poorest condition reminded me of the feet I had seen during my first and last time as a foot scrubber. I greatly admired the volunteers at the feet station.) Eventually, I became a ‘permanent’ volunteer for relaxation massage. I had been terribly nervous at first, as I couldn’t help but see each woman as delicate victims. Yet every participant showed me that in spite of the abuse they had experienced from childhood to adulthood, they are strong and persevering. Physically, they endured pains and aches but could not afford regular treatments. My role was to do my best to temporarily alleviate their pain (at least for the evening) and to listen to them.
There were certainly many weeks and months when I felt so exhausted after work that I did not feel like volunteering. The thought of having to stand for another 3 hours or so and focus the rest of my energy to perform relaxation neck-shoulder-back massages tired me. Nevertheless, I dragged myself to the centre each time and, surprisingly, I would suddenly feel wide awake again. There’s never a dull moment at Beauty Night!
So if you’re based in the GVA*, I highly encourage you to try volunteering at Beauty Night. Beauty bloggers especially. We love being pampered so why not share that excitement with women who cannot afford fancy treatments? You will learn so much about your Downtown Eastside neighbours and even about yourself.
*There might be a chapter in Toronto but best confirm that with Caroline!
What you’ll experience as a volunteer
- Shock – Be prepared to see some painful-looking hands and feet. You may even learn how these injuries happened. Be prepared to hear some heartbreaking and disturbing childhood and youth memories. Many of these women were (and are) victims of abuse. Take a deep breath and a break when you need to, for these stories will stay with you. So much that you want to do something about it.
- Gratitude – Even if we’re ‘ordinary middle-class folks’, we’re surrounded by first world problems that are exaggerated beyond necessity. Volunteering has reminded me to cherish everything I take for granted – a home, a family, a job. Many Vancouverites will admit that we’re all ‘just a paycheque away from being on the streets’ – especially if we’re not living at Hotel Mama’s and Papa’s. All the pretty things I desire no longer matter as much.
- Joy – Happiness lasts a short while but joy lasts longer. There is something beautiful about making others smile, especially if they were in a bad mood.
- Friendship – Once you start chatting more often with the regulars, you’ll both learn quite a bit about each other. Just as you make them feel respected, they’ll make you feel welcome. It’s also lovely when you see them around town or when you attend the events they’re in.
- Mourning – During my year-long tenure as a volunteer, we’ve lost a few ladies. One of them was a young woman around my age, if not younger. She was very sweet but struggled with an addiction that eventually took her life. The last time I saw her, we happened to be at the same seabus terminal. Since we were both with someone, I did not stop to say hello. I thought I would tell her that I’d seen her the next time she dropped by. When I saw the notice of her passing, I was greatly shocked. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to wait.
Whether you’re professionally qualified as a makeup artist or simply have the passion to help impoverished women, submit a volunteer application and drop by one of the regular training sessions. Male volunteers are welcome too. You won’t regret it!
Spread the word! 🙂